Review: Lost Horizon 1937
Capra and Tibet
National Board of Review Magazine March 1937 (Their web site here)
Written by Otis Ferguson
To those honestly concerned with the development of the motion picture as an art, Frank Capra has endeared himself above most producers of films. One after another, his pictures have appealed both to the exacting few who have demanded that the screen be bright with truth as well as vivid motion, and to the many whose demands at the box office have made the whole art of the screen possible. But in Hollywood's mushroom growth there has always been the unfortunate obstacle of a tendency to run (as in the copying of ideas, forms, effects) before one could walk, and many of the most arty attempts have tripped over this obstacle. Frank Capra never tripped because he never came anywhere near such an obstacle.
But after getting himself a name for being a sort of magician in the movies, he apparently began to take seriously a lot of things the movies (as he knew them) had never heard of. In Lost Horizon he seemed to see both a smashing adventure story and an
excursion into philosophy that would stun everybody. So he and his right-hand script writer (Robert Riskin) went to work on what is all too obviously an epic."
Lost Horizon in the Capra production for Columbia is manifestly high adventure with no expense spared. The plane Ronald Colman boards rises stirringly above the rebellion of the Chinese masses and rides stirringly through the night as Colman and his younger brother discover that they are being kidnapped along with a hodge-podge of passengers (an erratic E. E. Horton paleontologist, an Isabel jewel embittered sickly woman, a Thomas Mitchell ruined banker risen from plumber, etc.) The plane takes them into Tibet, higher and higher into the mountains, and their chance crack-up leads into the highest adventure of all-their discovery of a sheltered lamasery where the cross purposes of winds and mountains, private careers and universal revolutions, fade away in an atmosphere of June and good-will.
Up to this point it is still tense adventure stuff. But at this point Capra leaves an action spectacle for a romantic-Utopia in which he is no longer at ease. It turns out that Ronald Colman (an Anthony Edenish diplomat) has written some of the clearest philosophy of his day, and that for this reason a Grand Lama (instigated by The Girl) has shanghaied him hither to be Grand Lama Presumptive. Life in the lamasery, which is already getting too prolonged by reason of its miraculous climate, diet and general unworldliness, is thus extended to include romance, many pastoral shots, a natural conflict between the brothers and their love affairs, and some statements about the world that come even sillier from a Hollywood Grand Lama than they would from Arthur Brisbane. Ronald Colman is tricked, after having been made Grand Lama, into thinking he has been tricked; he goes out into the terrible winds again and after desperate adventures forsakes the world once more to return to his waiting sweetheart for the fade-out. Meanwhile there have been perhaps seven minutes in which the hand of Frank Capra might be considered visible, if palsied.
For the rest of it, no one could say who made the picture. It is mounted with elaborate heaviness, but on tissue paper. It abandons action for thought, and then spreads the thought so cosmic and wide that it cannot be any deeper than half-way tide over mud flats. The sets constructed (to life size) for the strange region of Shangri-La are alone worthy of Ahs and Ohs: the evident care in casting and acting stands our above the average run of most productions; but then there comes all this serious statement of the improbable that could be set forth effectively only in burlesque, and these random light-comedy effects that become burlesque against such a background-and in the end a person doesn't know where he is, except that he is nowhere as far as pictures are concerned. This film was made with obvious care and expense; but it will be notable in the future only as the first wrong step in a career that till now has been a denial of the very tendencies in pictures which this film represents. -
[Our page on the film with complete credits is here]
Original page 2007 | Updated April 2013